BAR HARBOR — The town council is set to decide in a few weeks whether to accept Bay Ferries’ proposal for a five-year lease of a portion of the Eden Street property the town is purchasing from the state.
The company holds a 10-year contract with the Province of Nova Scotia to provide ferry service to Maine, and is currently operating between Yarmouth, Nova Scotia, and Portland. That contract began in 2016, when Bay Ferries took over the Portland-Yarmouth ferry service from Nova Star cruises.
Questions from Bar Harbor residents about the proposal have focused on whether the ferry’s operation would interfere with plans for parking, public water access and a public marina. Some of the town’s concerns may be written into the lease agreement, such as a “kill clause” if the Coast Guard or U.S. Customs and Border Patrol impose untenable restrictions on nearby land or water use.
A conceptual design by Coplon Associates for possible use of the property shows Bay Ferries’ proposed operation confined to a portion of the property along the northern property line. That area would include all ferry and customs operations, but overnight parking for walk-on ferry passengers would be in the town’s lot.
“Our best estimate is that we will require between 15 and 100 parking spaces at any given time, with possibly an average of about 50,” Bay Ferries CEO Mark MacDonald said. “This would be for a combination of crew and staff parking and for overnight parking for passengers who travel without their vehicles.”
If the company were to return to Bar Harbor, it would be on a different schedule than in the past, with only one trip per day. That means the ferry would sit at the dock for about three hours on a sailing day. Passengers would not be loaded and unloaded at the same time, reducing the amount of physical space the operation needs. The ferry will not carry commercial trucks, as that would require a different customs facility.
Plans call for the ferry to be tied to the existing bollards on the north face of the existing pier, MacDonald said. “We may install piles along the north face of that pier to assist in absorbing the berthing energy of the ship. The remaining portions of the pier can remain as long as that is the wish of the town and so long as they are safe.”
If an agreement with Bar Harbor is approved, ferry service to Portland would end.
“It became increasingly apparent to us that the present ferry terminal footprint [in Portland] might not be available in the long term, which would make operations difficult,” MacDonald said. “We discussed this with the city in 2017 and advised them that we would have to explore the possibility of other options. All discussions with the city of Portland have been open and frank and we believe we retain a strong working relationship with the city of Portland.”
Also, sharing space with cruise ship traffic has caused complications. On a few occasions this year, Bay Ferries has had to cancel ferry runs on days when the ferry’s berth was occupied by a cruise ship.
Bar Harbor, MacDonald said, “was always a good port of entry for us in past operations, and it allows a shorter trip with lower fuel consumption and smaller environmental footprint, less susceptibility to large movements in energy prices and a quicker trip for passengers,” about 3.5 hours compared to 5.5-6 hours.
“The province has made a strong and long-term commitment to Maine-Nova Scotia ferry service,” he said. “The province has been privy to our consideration of Bar Harbor from the time that consideration commenced.”
On Sept. 4, the province, together with the local municipalities and the government of Canada announced a $10-million investment in the Yarmouth Ferry Terminal for purposes of the international ferry service.
When the current season ends next month, Bay Ferries will have seven seasons left in its contract with the province. The proposed lease with Bar Harbor is for five years. That’s because, MacDonald has said, they thought a shorter-term agreement might be more palatable to the town as local planning for use of the property continues. But “our hope is to remain in operation in Bar Harbor in the long term,” he said.